Defending Public Education
Engaging in struggle on the terrain of civil society: defending unions, public education, free and independent communications media, and o 0ppressed and marginalized communities under attack.
Excerpt from FIVE THESES ON THE TASKS OF THE CURRENT POLITICAL MOMENT ( prior post)
by Leo Casey
5. Democratic governance does not stand on its own. It is rooted in democratic society and culture, and it relies upon them for its sustenance and its survival. The neo-fascist offensive of the MAGA forces has not simply attacked democratic government; it has sought to undermine the societal and cultural underpinnings of democracy. The defeat of the authoritarian danger requires that we understand this component of the danger, and that we develop a strategic approach which prioritizes this front of the struggle with meaningful campaigns.
Civil society has the capacity to confound authoritarianism in fundamental ways: it brings working people together in associations and organizations outside of the direct control of the state, making possible democratic collective action from below. For this reason, authoritarian movements and states invariably seek to eviscerate and dominate the independent spaces and institutions of civil society. Perhaps nowhere is this authoritarian impulse more evident than in the attacks on unions, as unions have been at the center of democratic movements and insurgencies across the globe over the last century.
Despite a decades-long decline in the size and density of U.S. unions, they continue to be the largest and most significant mass organizations on the broad left, without any meaningful competitors. If U.S. unions had the economic and social power they possessed at their height, when one-third of the workforce was organized, we would be at a quite different political crossroads today. Consider the fact that when white workers are organized in unions and involved in common cause with people of other races, they are much less likely to embrace racist views. If the once great industrial unions were still the potent forces that provided the political muscle for the passage of the New Deal and the Great Society, there would be many fewer white male workers that being drawn into the MAGA base through appeals to white racial resentment. As it is, even in their current form U.S. unions – especially public sector and service sector unions – have put into the field the most substantial campaign operations to defeat the MAGA Republicans in recent elections. This is why the MAGA forces which now control the U.S. House of Representatives will put unions in their cross-hairs, as will MAGA controlled state governments in places such as Florida and Texas. Teacher unions will be a particular target, because they are among the largest and most organizationally substantial of U.S. unions, because they have mounted especially effective electoral campaigns, and because they are at the intersection of another critical front in the MAGA forces offensive against democratic civil society, public education.[iii]
Public education – both preK-12 and higher education – contains the civil society institutions with the greatest capacity to educate young people into the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of democratic citizenship. Public schools can impart to their students the ability to think critically and independently, to reason logically and problem solve, and to question authority, all of which are inimical to authoritarian rule. At their best, public schools can bring together youth from different races and ethnicities, different social and economic backgrounds, different religious faiths, and different sexes, sexual orientations, and gender identities, and teach them how to work with each other in common purpose, toward the achievement of common goods. Even when public education fails to realize its full promise on these counts, which occurs far more than it should in the U.S., the fact that it has this democratic potential makes it a constant threat to authoritarian movement and states. And that has made public education in the U.S. into a target of MAGA forces.
The MAGA offensive against public education is being fought on two fronts. First, there are moves to eviscerate public education institutionally, primarily through the establishment and expansion of voucher systems which would shift government preK-12 funding to private religious schools and home schooling – education delivery systems which are better aligned with the politics of the right. (This is a shift from the prior conservative focus on establishing charter schools.) Second, there are attempts to mire public education in various ‘culture wars’ with attacks on the teaching of complete and accurate U.S. history and civics (the misleading assaults of ‘critical race theory’ and the 1619 Project), attacks on policies that have been used to mitigate transmission of Covid in public schools during the pandemic, and attacks on equity and inclusion programs for students of color and LGBTQ students. On this last front, the attacks on public education have become a major vehicle for inciting moral panics against marginalized communities, with particularly virulent attacks on transgender students and drag queen story hours designed to create interest in books and reading. The objective is to use these moral panics to delegitimize public education: hence, the claim – simultaneously absurd and outrageous – that teachers who make their classrooms welcoming places for LGBTQ students are sexually ‘grooming’ students.[iv]
While many on the left are familiar with some of the different elements of the MAGA offensive against public education, its full scope is not generally appreciated, as it operates primarily on the terrain of the state – rather than federal – governments, and so receives less attention. Perhaps the best illustration of how it operates is found the state of Florida, where through his vigorous pursuit of this offensive, Governor DeSantis has become the champion of those on the right who seek an autocratic ‘Trumpism without Trump.’ Just last week, Florida Republicans unveiledproposed legislation which would institute a universal K-12 voucher program, putting the state’s public education system in jeopardy; two years ago, DeSantis shepherded a major expansion of Florida’s voucher system into law.[v]
This voucher initiative follows closely on a spate of recent legislation and state regulations designed to reshape the instruction of Florida’s schools in fundamental ways – the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the Stop W.O.K.E. act, and a ban on teaching “critical race theory” and the 1619 Project. The common objective of these measures is to restrict how educators can teach the history and the contemporary reality of race, sexuality, and gender identity, as well as how schools can address discrimination which students of color and LGBTQ students face. To maximize their chilling effect on educators, these laws and regulations are general and vague in their proscriptions, and they establish an individual right of action modeled after the Texas anti-abortion law, so that literally anyone who decides that they don’t like what is being taught can sue a school district and seek to have an educator fired. DeSantis and his Department of Education has made it clear that they will pursue the most expansive definitions of these prohibitions: we have now seen state directed ‘trainings’ of school librarians on the many books that must be kept from the shelves of their libraries (Florida ranks second in the nation on book banning); the rejection of almost half of the standard textbooks used to teach K-12 Mathematics in the U.S. on the grounds that they “indoctrinate” because they included references to vaccines, climate change, and socio-emotional learning; and the prohibition of a new Advanced Placement course in African-American Studies, which is being developed through a rigorous peer-reviewed national process, because it “lacks education value” and is “contrary to Florida law.”
Attacks on fundamental academic freedoms are taking place in Florida’s public colleges and universities. In recent years, University of Florida political scientists were told by their state university administrators they could not serve as expert witnesses for plaintiffs challenging the state’s voter suppression laws.[vi] In response to a recent DeSantis demand that state colleges and universities provide information on courses and programs that include any mention of “diversity, equity and inclusion” and “critical race theory,” the heads of those institutions immediately caved, issuing a joint statement in which they announced that they would “not fund or support any institutional practice, policy, or academic requirement that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.” Just as K-12 teachers in Florida are pulling books from their class libraries out of fear that they will be criminally prosecuted, faculty in Florida’s colleges and universities have also begun to self-censor, dropping courses on race and racism that could conceivably trigger disciplinary action and lead to the loss of their jobs.
With DeSantis’ sponsorship, Florida has become ground zero for a national MAGA effort to overwhelm and capture the democratic governance of public education. Led by the proto-fascist Moms for Liberty, which originated in Brevard County, Florida with DeSantis’ support, chaotic – and on occasion, violent – disruptions of school board meetings were organized across the country. Individual board members were personally targeted for their positions on issues of Covid prevention measures such as masking, and the rights of transgender students and students of color. Much like the far right attacks on those who administer local elections, the point of these efforts was to drive out with vitriolic attacks those who had run for school boards simply to make a positive difference in schools. Insofar as the MAGA forces were also successful in bullying school boards into banning books and undoing educational efforts that addressed questions of race, sexuality and gender identity, it was a bonus – the immediate objective was not so much to change policy, but to capture control of the school boards. It was all a prelude to the 2022 mid-term elections, in which far right poured large amounts of dark money into an all-out campaign to win control of local school boards across the country. Like much of the far right’s efforts in the 2022 mid-term elections, this campaign came up short: Moms for Liberty itself admitted that it lost a majority of the school board races where it had endorsed candidates. But the successes were far too many to see this MAGA offensive to gain control of school boards as anything but an ongoing threat. And in Florida, the efforts of the far right were largely successful: 24 of the 30 candidates endorsed and financed by DeSantis won. No sooner did these candidates take office this month than they begin to fireincumbent school district superintendents.
In Florida’s college and universities, DeSantis has now installed a wide swath of conservative trustees and officials. In a particularly shocking move, these trustees – led by far right provocateur Chris Rufo – have announced their intentions to remake Florida’s New College, a small four year institution with a long tradition of progressive education, into a version of Hillsdale College, an outpost of strident Trumpian ideology in higher education.
At every step, Florida’s teacher union – a merged federation of the two national teacher unions, AFT and NEA – has opposed DeSantis’ educational agenda and opposed him electorally. In retaliation, DeSantis is now sponsoring legislation that would prohibit union members from having their dues automatically deducted from their pay cheques; if passed, this measure would force the union to spend time and resources to solicit dues on a regular basis from every individual member.
Let me conclude by explicitly noting what is absent from this account of the MAGA offensive against public education in Florida and across the country, and of the larger MAGA offensive against civil society – the organized U.S. left. That is because the organized left itself has yet to understand the character of this front in the struggle against authoritarianism from the far right, and is largely absent from the primary battles in it, which have been left to teacher unions and educational progressives to fight on their own. That must change, if the larger battle is to be won.
[i] It is worth pointing out, if only parenthetically, that the most substantial progressive advances in American history, from the Reconstruction to the defeat of Jim Crow, from the New Deal to the Great Society, have relied upon broad center-left coalitions.
[ii] This DSA policy is not even successful on its own terms: there are now more DSA members in Congress who have been elected without the endorsement and support of the organization than those who have been elected with it. As ultra-left and sectarian attacks from within its ranks on DSA’s elected members have grown, and as ever more purity litmus tests have been imposed for endorsement, DSA members who are viable candidates for national office are increasingly choosing to not seek the organization’s endorsement. It is only a matter of time, I would suggest, before they part ways with the organization.
[iii] The recent attack of former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on AFT President Randi Weingarten – calling Weingarten the “most dangerous person in the world,” more dangerous than “Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un” – is a striking example of the MAGA Republican attacks on teacher unions. Pompeo’s characterization came in the midst of a long diatribe of his against “critical race theory” and the 1619 Project.
[iv] DeSantis’ press sectary, Christina Pushaw, would accuse opponents of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law of being sexual “groomers.”
[v] Arizona recently adopted such a system, and the Republican governor of Iowa has also proposed one. Voucher use is currently concentrated in battleground states where MAGA Republicans have control of the state legislature: Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
[vi] Under public pressure, the administrators would eventually withdraw this directive.
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